The Real Life Challenge

Alte Raskin, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2018

MyLife Essay Contest 2018

B is frustrated with himself. His ideal daily schedule, where he wakes up 5:45 am, didn’t happen. “I’m such a failure. I can never get my act together,” he taunted himself.

C, a young mother, complained on the phone. “I wasted time, yet again! It’s not like I have nothing to do. I know I have two quiet hours, a sink full of dishes, laundry to fold and my house is mess. I just thought it was more important to look up everyone else’s lives on Facebook. Ugh- I’m so mad at myself!”

S’s children were rather tired from a day at school, and S was feeling stressed with work deadlines.  A dispute during supper time ended with S snapping at and threatening her kids. That night, after the house quieted down, S reflected on her day. “Well, I win the worst parenting award. I for sure scarred my children and taught them negative ways to cope. I’m just messing them up for life.”

Negative Self-Talk

All of these true scenarios are filled with negative self-talk. The protagonists were frustrated at their inability to behave in the way they deemed ideal.  In fact, every person probably berated themselves with similar lines over one shortcoming or another. These debilitating messages we tell ourselves lead to no good. Our self-confidence erodes, we view ourselves as bad people, and many fall into negative, destructive behaviors as a result from these beliefs.

The good news is that Chassidus has a method to deal with these negative thoughts. The Alter Rebbe, the first Chabad Rebbe, wrote a book with the basis of Chassidic philosophy known as the Tanya. He devotes the first section to answering concerns that can separate a Jew from proper behavior, specifically in Torah and mitzvos. Using the premise that our minds can and should rule our heart, he discusses over several chapters in Tanya how to combat depression.

These pivotal chapters cover many situations that can cause depression. In this essay, I am going to focus in on one cause- negative self-talk centered on self-disappointment. The solution, how to identify and interpret our struggle, is based off of Chapter 27 in Tanya.  

The J Factor

What is the problem with these unfavorable feelings in the first place? The Alter Rebbe explains that all of life is a battle between two forces insides us: a G-dly inclination who desires to do good, and an animal inclination which seeks self-gratification. Every test and temptation we face becomes a battle between these two contestants. The winner depends on us.

It is impossible to triumph any fight when a person is in a lazy, sluggish mood. This disposition is a direct result from angry, lonely, depressive thoughts which can pull a person down. Negative thoughts are one of the foremost tactics of the evil inclination. When we feel low, we are in his hands.  There is a Chassidic adage which expresses this perfectly. “Depression is not a sin, but it can take a person to a low where no sin can go. “

In order to have a fighting chance over our animal inclination, we need to be infused with the J factor- Joy. An energetic person feels happy, confidant and capable. In order to return to a contented frame of mind, the following tactics can be used for negative self-talk:

Step One: Identify

Identify the thought as being negative and that it comes from a not productive place.

It is easy to fool ourselves into believing these unfavorably thoughts are good, as they lead to self-growth. After all, anyone who fixed a character trait needed to first identify where they went wrong.

The litmus test for evaluating if these thoughts are helpful is as follows:

1)     When did these thoughts occur to me?

We should not be walking around evaluating our behavior all day. This type of mindset easily leads a person to depression. Instead, the Torah recommends set times to sit and evaluate our behavior: By the nighttime Shema, the day before a new Jewish month begins, and the High Holiday season of Elul and Tishrei. When we dedicate time to self-evaluation, we are examining our deeds with practical considerations of changing what we can.

If, however, we are in middle of our daily life and such thoughts come to us, it is not a thought we should entertain. Why would self-evaluation be bothering you in middle of business, school or prayer? If these thoughts pop in during the day, you can correctly identify them as a thought to discount.

2)     How do I feel after thinking this way?

If I am energized and inspired to connect to G-d, and feel empowered to deal with my negative inclination, it was a positive thought. In fact, true self-evaluation ends with joy, because one feels closer to G-d. He effectively pushed aside negative forces blocking their connection.

 If I feel unworthy, uncomfortable with myself, resort to escaping behaviors or is generally glum, this thought clearly came from a destructive place. The goal of transporting a person to a downhearted state was accomplished. Now, a method is needed to deal with it.

Step Two: Interpret

Interpret the struggle positively.

Many of us resort to the blame game, against ourselves. “Why do I keep repeating the same mistakes?” “If I successfully controlled myself last time, what happened now? Why am I regressing?” “I am just no good.”

The Alter Rebbe asserts strongly in Tanya that such thoughts stem from arrogance! The person forgot their identity, why they are put into this world. 

G-d intentionally created several types of people. Rare, exclusive few were created as tzaddikim; to be perfectly righteous and never struggle. Their evil inclination does not exist. They have perfect mastery over every thought, speech and action. Such flawless people are merely here to help the rest of humanity with their tasks.

The average person, a beinoni, is created to struggle. Beinonim have an active evil inclination and an active G-dly soul. The showdown between them occurs often. If the person applied their mind, controlled their heart and made proper decisions, G-d rejoices. Every battle against an improper thought and deed has the potential to sanctify G-d. This is why He created this world. His imperfect creature just achieved perfection.

A beinoni who is depressed over his constant conflict needs to remember his identity. “I am not a tzaddik, but am striving to be a beinoni. I was created to struggle. In fact, let me rejoice, for an opportunity to win was just presented to me. This battle I am waging is the purpose of my creation. I am fulfilling G-d’s will!” A beinoni who thinks they should be above such petty tussles is arrogant. They were not created a tzaddik. Make no mistake- you are still a beinoni.

We need to reframe our struggles from signs of failure to signs of humanness. The fact we are doing our job correctly should cause joy, not sadness. A beinoni needs to always bear in mind that the goal is to do better, win this round, and not to be perfect.  


True, B had a late morning. Dwelling on the “could have, should have, no good” aspects of his schedule will lead to an unproductive day, where he is full of regrets. Clearly, these thoughts are negative and must be redirected. Now, B can reframe his day. “I am human. Humans sometimes make mistakes, like waking up late. I am still a good person. G-d created me with the challenge of time management. And He will help me succeed tomorrow morning.”

C has two choices. She can spend the rest of her free time on the phone, bemoaning her inability to maximize time, or she can take control of her mindset. “Just because I had a hard time maximizing the past hour, does not mean I am a bad person. I am not a time-waster, unproductive or lazy. I just made a poor choice. This is a very normal, human struggle.  I can now make anew decision and choose to use the next fifteen minutes to wash the dishes.”

S’s strong beliefs about her inability to be an ideal parent role model will increase her frustration for the task. Clearly, these thoughts need to be nipped in the bud. Using Tanya, S can remind herself, “It is completely natural that tired kids and a stressed mother can lead to tears. One hard day is not scarring my children for life. G-d created me imperfect. He wants me to work and improve my parenting. It will be a struggle where I achieve progress. Even as I improve, I will definitely have other times where I am not ideal, since I was not created perfect. I am not doing something wrong. I am actually doing something right- causing the world to be a better place as I work on my parenting.”

Coming to terms with our humanness, being ok with making mistakes and keeping the focus on what G-d wants from us will lead to lots of positive, hopeful self-talks in the future.